Based on the 2008 bestseller by first-time author Hillary Jordan, Dee Rees's Mudbound is a compelling portrait of two interwoven families-one white, one black-struggling to survive in the isolated Mississippi Delta before, during, and after World War II. Like Jordan's book, Rees's often extraordinary film-it is both epic and impressively personal despite its tapestry of characters-is haunted by the ravages of racism, a social and political virus that erodes humanity in ways both interpersonal and institutional.
The two families are the McAllans and the Jacksons, and, as in the book, various members of these families narrate different portions of the film, which provides additional and often poignant insight into their experiences and perspectives (the sparing and pointed use of these voice-overs makes them that much more effective). The McAllans, the white family, is headed by Henry (Jason Clarke), a generally decent engineer who is nevertheless a bit dull and not particularly insightful. His wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), is dutiful and dedicated in raising their children, and she goes along with Henry's potentially disastrous desire to move from their comfortable middle-class existence in Memphis and relocate to Mississippi to work 200 acres of farmland-a dream that Henry has always had. She also endures Henry's father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), a vile, embittered racist whose scowling presence in any room immediately poisons it. The other family, the Jacksons, are black tenants who work part of the land Henry buys. The father, Hap (Rob Morgan), is a minister who is determined that his children will have a better life than he and his ancestors have had (in a crucial scene early, he corrects his son when he dismisses his sister's desire to be a stenographer by saying there are no black stenographers; "Then she'll be the first," Hap says). His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), is a midwife who eventually accepts work at the McAllan's house to make more money even though it takes her time and attention away from her own family.
The McAllans and the Jacksons are connected not just by the land they both live on and work, but by the fact that a member of each family goes off to fight in World War II and comes back to a world he doesn't fully recognize. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), Henry's more charming and dashing younger brother, pilots a B-25 bomber and endures a grisly-traumatic experience in which both his gunner and his copilot are shot and killed during a mission; when he comes home, he medicates his post-traumatic stress with copious amounts of alcohol and sardonic disillusionment. Meanwhile, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), Hap's oldest son, gains honor and recognition as a sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion and has an affair with a German woman during the occupation in Bavaria. Yet, when he returns home, his status as a war hero is undercut, if not outright dismissed, by the constant, brutal reminders of his second-class status in the country he spent years defending, where he is forced to go out the back door, keep his head down, and endure all manner of racist name-calling. Jamie and Ronsel develop a friendship that cuts through the limiting social norms of the Jim Crow South, which raises the ire of Pappy and his Klan-member friends and concerns Hap, who has long since learned to play by the rules imposed on him. Ronsel, having ironically tasted what it feels like to be truly equal while fighting in Europe, finds it difficult to do the same, which all but invites tragedy of the most violent sort.
Dees, a black female filmmaker, first gained notice with Pariah (2011), a well-received drama about a teenage black lesbian living in Brooklyn, and most recently directed Bessie (2015), a made-for-television drama about blues performer Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah. Mudbound represents a phenomenal opportunity for Dees to establish her cinematic voice and break out from small-scale independent filmmaking, something that has been frequently denied to other black female filmmakers, including Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons. Dees, who co-wrote the screenplay with TV veteran Virgil Williams (his writing credits include multiple episodes of 24, ER, and Criminal Minds), achieves something quite profound here, as she evokes the travails and pains of mid-20th-cenutry America, where victory in the Good War did little to cure the country's institutionalized racism, through a half-dozen well-realized characters who represent, but are not limited to, different facets of the nation's soul. Hap, for example, is a portrait of decency, morality, and self-sufficiency, yet his deeply ingrained understanding of his "place" in relation to whites perpetuates the very system that keeps him and his family subservient. Ronsel, on the other hand, represents the emerging voice of black frustration that would eventually coalesce into the civil rights movement and later black nationalism, yet the manner in which he wields it puts him and others in grave danger and achieves little other than raising the ire of those who would think nothing of killing black men who threaten the Jim Crow social order. In this regard, Mudbound is a profoundly unnerving film, as you can sense early on that it is marching toward tragedy.
Even though cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Dope, the forthcoming Black Panther) gives us more than a few beautiful shots that remind us that the land itself and the open skies have nothing to do with the horrible acts perpetuated in their midst, there is no romanticizing of, nor yearning for, the past. Dees is clear and direct in her portrayal of life under Jim Crow, when segregation laws premised on the laughable concept of "separate but equal" ensured that black Americans would not have just second-class status, but would be in constant fear of their lives lest they upset-intentionally or otherwise-the racially charged social balance designed to keep them subservient. But, not only that, the system ensured that any whites who dared to do anything other than perpetuate the myth of white superiority were themselves in danger, as well, albeit not nearly in the sense that blacks were.
In this regard, Mudbound is an absolutely crucial film for today, as the specter of white supremacy and a renewed romanticism about the South, most prominently embodied in the continued desire to maintain memorials and statues to the Confederacy and aided and abetted by the current administration, threatens to undermine decades of progression in American race relations. Its evocation of just how bad the past was is a reminder of how far we've come, although even more importantly it compels us to recognize just how far we have left to go.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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